[Originally published in Hürriyet Daily News]
Turkey has just been drawn to yet another controversy with the officially supported science magazine, “Bilim ve Teknik,” refraining from publishing a 16-page cover story that highlighted Darwin’s ideas. As also reported in these pages yesterday, the story prepared by the magazine’s chief editor, Dr. Çiğdem Atakuman, was removed at the last minute by Professor Ömer Cebeci, the vice president of TÜBİTAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council), which sponsors the publication.
I don’t know anything about the motives of these particular academics, but I have heard that there is a tension in TÜBİTAK between the old generation secularists and the newly appointed religious conservatives. And this Darwin case might well be an example of that conflict.
But why is there such a conflict? The typical secularist narrative will tell us that religious conservatives are simply too bigoted to face any scientific theory that clashes with their dogmas. As iconized by the infamous Scopes Trial, and later popularized by the famous movie, “Inherit the Wind,” this account presents us an image of Bible (or Koran) thumping fanatics who try to impose their beliefs on facts.
To be sure, that image is not imaginary, because the world has no shortage of such religious fanatics. But this is only one side of the problem. On the other side, there are secular fanatics who also impose their beliefs on facts. And the more they present their anti-religious philosophies as “science,” the more religious people become reactionary to science as such.
The trick that the secular fanatics use here is a simple one: extrapolating philosophical naturalism from methodological naturalism.
If that sounds too theoretical, let me explain. Methodological naturalism is the way modern science works. Since the scientific method is limited observation and experiment, scientists can only examine the natural world. There is no way for them to ask the question, “is there something beyond nature,” and then go to a field or a lab to find an answer. The supernatural is a non-issue for the scientific method.
The fact that science cannot dwell on the supernatural also means that it can neither confirm nor deny its existence. In order to deny its existence, you need to accept the other idea I noted, i.e., philosophical naturalism which claims, “Nature is all there is.” This is, just like the belief in the supernatural, a belief.
What secular fanatics typically do is to sell their philosophical naturalism in the cloak of science. Carl Sagan, for example, used to open his famous TV show, “Cosmos,” by a customary motto: “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be.” Since there is no observation or experiment to support this claim, it is a philosophical presupposition, not a scientific fact. But Sagan was promoting it as if it were a scientific fact.
Now, in the face of that, it is not too surprising to see some religious believers taking a stance against not only philosophical naturalism, but also the inherent methodological naturalism of science that is used to bolster that view.
This is especially true for the Darwinian theory of evolution, which, from the very beginning, has been misused to advance philosophical naturalism and attack traditional religious belief. Darwin himself did not have such a bias, but some of his supporters did. The zeal of the latter day Darwinian atheists such as Richard Dawkins was shared by others as early as late 19th century.
In Turkey, too, Darwinism entered the scene as a tool for atheistic propaganda. It was first imported to the late Ottoman Empire by ultra-secularist Young Turks such as Abdullah Cevdet, who believed that religion should be trashed out for “progress.” The Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer or Ernst Haeckel, too, influenced many Young Turks, who, after the Republic, morphed into Kemalists. After the 60′s on, Marxist left took over the evolution debate, and used Darwin to bolster dialectical materialism. In the 70′s you would often see Darwin’s Origin of Species presented along with Marx’s Das Kapital, and a third book with a title such as “The Fallacy of God,” or the “The (Ugly) Truth About Islam.”
Propaganda and Resistance
That’s why Islamic circles in Turkey have typically been resistant to the theory of evolution. Better informed theologians sometimes recall that evolution is not incompatible with the Koran, and in fact some medieval Islamic thinkers had developed evolutionary ideas. But in the face of the propaganda carried out by anti-religious Darwinians, such voices are hardly heard.
In order to have an objective discussion on the origin of life, we have to move beyond these two opposing yet mutually enhancing fanaticisms. Scientific articles in “Bilim ve Teknik” should never be censored, to be sure, but the same magazine should open its pages not just to atheistic but also theistic interpreters of evolution. The latter is something I have hardly seen in TÜBİTAK publications to date.